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U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan hits Taliban 4 days after Trump admin. signs peace deal

Afghan security forces stand guard after an attack by Taliban militants near an Afghan National Army (ANA) outpost, in Kunduz Province, March 4, 2020.  STR/AFP/GETTY

The U.S. military confirmed Wednesday its first airstrike targeting Taliban fighters in Afghanistan since a landmark agreement was signed by the insurgent group and the Trump administration over the weekend.

The drone strike in the Nahr-e-Saraj district of southern Helmand province was actually the first such strike in 11 days, according to the U.S. military, and it showed that in spite of the Trump administration's boasts over the deal to wind down the war, the Taliban has not stopped fighting, and American involvement in the 19-year-old conflict is not over yet.

U.S. military spokesperson Col Sonny Leggett announced the strike in a tweet, saying U.S. forces had attacked Taliban fighters "who were actively attacking" a checkpoint manned by Afghan forces.

"This was a defensive strike to disrupt the attack. This was our 1st strike against the Taliban in 11 days," Leggett said, adding that the Taliban had conducted 43 attacks on Afghan checkpoints on Tuesday alone.

"Taliban leadership promised the Int'l community they would reduce violence and not increase attacks," Leggett said, referring to the agreement signed over the weekend in Doha, Qatar. "We call on the Taliban to uphold their commitments."

But the Taliban insist they have not violated any terms of the deal that President Trump pushed hard for, and which took American negotiators more than a year of tumultuous negotiations to finalize.

The agreement was aimed at helping Mr. Trump deliver on a long-standing promise to extricate the U.S. from the longest war it's ever been involved in. The agreement — to which Afghanistan's own government was not a party — paves the way and lays out a timetable for a full withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan.

The three-and-a-half page agreement does not, however, obligate the Taliban to abstain from any specific actions after an initial week of Reduction in Violence, which ended over the weekend. 

The deal has been sharply criticized by Democratic lawmakers for its lack of safeguards. On Tuesday, as President Trump spoke to one of the founding members of the Taliban for 35 minutes to mark the agreement, Republican Representative Liz Cheney accused his administration of misleading the American public about it.

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Cheney said that, contrary to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's claims, there is no verification mechanism provided in the agreement to ensure the Taliban keeps its promises.

The Taliban's spokesman in Qatar, Suhail Shaheen, said in a tweet after the U.S. strike on Wednesday that the insurgent group had implemented "all parts of the agreement one after the other to prevent escalation."  

Taliban commander Salih Khan in Helmand, meanwhile, told CBS News' Sami Yousafzai that the deal with the U.S. could "vanish" if American forces continue targeting Taliban fighters. He said he was awaiting further word from the group's leadership, but that he had already received orders to resume attacking Afghan forces — but not foreign troops.

"Now we are happy to resume attacking U.S. forces as well, if our leaders order" it, he said.

Another Taliban representative in Qatar, Salam Hanafi, told fellow leaders of the group in a message forwarded to CBS News' Yousafzai later Wednesday that the Taliban did not consider the American airstrike a violation of the deal signed over the weekend. Hanafi said that under the deal U.S. forces can still defend their Afghan allies from attacking Taliban militants, "just on the spot" of the initial attack. 

He said as long as American troops do not pursue or carry out targeted strikes against the insurgents elsewhere, retaliation was essentially fair game.

"If [the] USA did not add this condition, then [the] Afghan government would collapse, instead of in 14 months, in 14 days," Hanafi boasted. The group has long been dismissive of the Afghan government, and insisted on carrying out negotiations for the agreement signed in Doha with U.S. diplomats, not Afghan government officials.

Javid Faisal, a spokesperson for Afghanistan's National Security Adviser, told CBS News that since the end of the official one-week Reduction in Violence that precipitated the signing of the peace agreement, the Taliban had conducted 76 attacks across the country. He said 85 Taliban militants were killed in retaliation.

The U.S. deal with the Taliban was only designed to halt the fight between the militants and the foreign forces in Afghanistan, and it was widely expected that after that initial week-long Reduction in Violence, the Taliban would continue attacking Afghan forces until the insurgents reach a final agreement with the Afghan government.

Those intra-Afghan negotiations are scheduled to begin on March 10, as laid out in the agreement signed in Doha. However, the Taliban are demanding a prisoner swap to have 5,000 militants freed in exchange for 1,000 Afghan security forces held by the group before intra-Afghan talks even begin. 

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